In the first of a new series, our writers sing the praises of their favourite film endings. This week, Ella Kemp celebrates the subversive climax of Greta Gerwig's Little Women
In 1868, the first volume of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was released into the world. The version as we know it today is one book containing two volumes – but Alcott only wrote the second part of the story, published in 1869, because the first proved to be such a critical and commercial success. The world simply needed more of these girls and their lives. Where Alcott thought the story had ended, the people told her otherwise.
Greta Gerwig’s 2019 screen adaptation proves itself loyal to this binary. The film skips between past and present, interweaving two timelines until they meet in the middle to truthfully paint the picture of the March sisters’ coming-of-age. But then the film’s ending changed everything. When it was first announced that the Lady Bird director would be tackling Alcott’s novel, already adapted over a dozen times for the screen both big and small, eyebrows were raised. But in those final scenes? Gerwig split open this beloved snowglobe of a world with such ambition that it feels nothing short of genius.
The story of Little Women is coloured by the complementarity of the four March sisters, each with different desires and ambitions, who end up with completely different futures. Beth, the quiet and musical one, contracts scarlet fever and passes away. Amy, the artistic one who yearns to be loved, aspires to marry rich from the off, and ends up with Laurie, the March family’s handsome and wealthy neighbour. Meg, the eldest and most selfless one, marries Laurie’s tutor John Brooks and has children at the film and book’s halfway point. And Jo? Arguably the main character, the headstrong writer who has always sworn herself to remain independent? Now, here’s where the story begins to bend.
In the book, although Jo’s life saw her storm into adulthood proudly alone, Alcott had to end it otherwise. In the 19th century, after all, who would buy a book about a woman who chooses not to get married? Re-reading the book today, much of Alcott’s novel feels vivid and modern, which undoubtedly came as a shock at the time. As a young woman working with words and trying to navigate a world with as much independence and as little loneliness as possible, it often feels like Alcott is reading my mind. In Gerwig’s film, the director both embraces and moves beyond Alcott’s words. The book saw Jo initially reject Laurie, her best friend, and later meet and marry Professor Friedrich Bhaer. In the film, the first part remains the same, but the second part? We simply do not know.
Freidrich travels from New York to Massachusetts to visit Jo in her family home before travelling West to start a new job in California. He hints that he has no reason to stay. Jo lets him leave, but as she closes the door, she sees her whole family staring back, urging her to chase after him.
But this isn’t the only narrative unfolding. The film then switches to a conversation between Jo and her prospective publisher – she’s just sold the novel she’s been working on, a story about her life and her sisters. At this point, Gerwig takes liberties, and separates Jo the romantic heroine from Jo as a proxy for Alcott’s pragmatic author, the negotiating writer finding a way to get her book sold. Jo in the publisher’s office says Jo the romantic heroine lets the man leave, but the publisher argues for her to go and get him, claiming the book will not sell otherwise.
And so? Gerwig lets both happen. The scene after the door closes plays at a giddy pace, seeing Amy and Meg bolstering Jo to run after Friedrich. She goes to the train station. It’s raining, and she doesn’t know if his train has left yet. The woozy string section swells, romance becomes almost overwhelming. As Jo reaches the train station, she sees Friedrich. Under his umbrella, the pair exchange confessions, and they kiss. We then immediately cut to Jo/Alcott the pragmatic author in the office, who has effectively just managed to sell her story and is negotiating fees.
When I saw this ending for the first time on the big screen, I didn’t know what to do with myself. The tropes I’ve grown so tired of, the happy endings that feel untrue and incomplete, were coloured here in a different light – not mocked, but entirely transformed. The subversion took me by surprise precisely because of how fluid it is. It's an ending that leaves me free to place faith in whichever outcome I need, whenever I need it.
Which one is real? Did Jo stay true to her gut, or did she truly have a change of heart? Gerwig allows room for each viewer to decide what is fair, what is right, and lets every possibility of independence and ownership and affection flirt and hang suspended in mid-air. Instead of frustrating those enlivened by Jo’s stubborn independence, or upsetting those who dreamt of a more traditional (and faithful) happy ending, Gerwig caters to both. She didn’t rewrite the story, step on any toes, or decide she knew better. She chose to believe in dreams and see strength in the inbetween, to let two opposite realities coexist. She did it for the Alcott who wrote, the Alcott who sold, the Jo who wanted to be loved, and every girl looking back who hasn’t quite decided yet.
I love the grace and the hope I feel when watching it unfold. I admire the way Gerwig toes the line between audacity and care, at all times. This ending gives each and every viewer the confidence to know that there can always be another way to keep faith, and see a new future in the same story.